I feel my life is a jigsaw, finally completed in compiling a PhD focused on how humans connect to nature and how this impacts their health. For ninety-nine percent of human existence we have been hunter-gatherers in tune with the environment (Wilson, 1993) with one percent of time spent moving towards urban and sedentary lifestyles. I feel, at times, I grew up in the wrong one percent of human history.
As a child, I used to run around our family garden naked, no matter the weather. Back in the 1980’s there was not the same public health awareness revolving around skin cancer and I was a determined child who always wanted to be outdoors. Although, growing up in the city, I always felt connected to the natural environment.
This connection was augmented by having sheep dogs who were my companions and fostered a mutual relationship with humans, animals, and the natural landscape. It is not surprising that research confirms the health benefits of having contact with animals (Maller et al., 2008). Indigenous people worldwide place a significant emphasis on this connection with animals, passed down through ancestry. Videbsky (2005: 27, 261) describes Indigenous Siberian reindeer peoples’ deep relationship with these creatures:
The relationship set up at the beginning of time between the Eveny and their animals is different from the relationship in Genesis, where God gives Adam ‘dominion’ over every kind of creature. For the Eveny, animals are … psychologically more complex… each relate[ing] to humans in their own distinctive way
During my adolescence, the place where I escaped my frustrations and built close relationships was an urban park. This safe environment provided a deep and powerful sense of harmony for me. Having this space allowed me to appreciate natural environments and move beyond the urban landscape. Pretty (2007, VII) maintains that humans are slowly losing this connection to nature which he believes is wrongly viewed by modern society as uncivilised or a romantic notion stating:
there will for the first time be more people worldwide living in urban than rural areas... We lose nature … we forget the animals ... We eat anonymized food that have no place-based stories, and put the fat of land on ourselves… we seem to buy into a comforting idea that all we do contributes to inevitable economic progress ... We can no longer conceive of Indigenous people living in old… ways … and so seek to convert them all to the benefit of modern life... Perhaps we are too frightened to think that they might have something useful to tell us…
Since my early twenties I have been privileged to be able to work in Aboriginal communities across Australia where I observed this rather useful, historically significant and complex culture. One such example of this occurred when I met Tim Nelson in 2006, a Gija Traditional Custodian, whom I assisted in setting up school holiday programs in his remote community in Western Australia.
I transferred skills to Tim and other community leaders that led to young people from his community dancing at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, as part of the Australian Football League’s Dreamtime at the G game in 2007 in front of 70,000 people. Tim was a special person and we instantly became friends. We spent many days after work, hunting and walking his land that meant so much to his health and that of his people. I reciprocally shared my culture when he came to Melbourne - staying with and sharing festivals with my family.
When I met Tim he had just recovered from a car accident caused by excessive alcohol intake. He had been in a coma for 3 months and facial scars were a constant reminder of this period. We spoke about the accident and he wanted to change past habits, not getting involved in the grog and making sure the youth in his community got a better chance to learn about their culture. For him culture revolved around living sustainably within nature and protecting and maintaining his Country.
I gave him a vehicle, through the holiday program, to take kids from his community and teach them the skills that his Elders had taught him about Country. This contributed to him being elected as a representative on his community’s leadership committee. He was the youngest on this board, but his knowledge of the land and how it interlinked with the health and wellbeing of his community was extensive. Tim had come from a tough background and yet achieved so much. This stimulated me to work rigorously on my postgraduate research project focused on the health benefits of Country to Victorian Aboriginal people.
In 2008 Tim died in a motorcar accident. This distressed me but strengthened my resolve to work with Aboriginal communities to improve poor health outcomes and convey his message of how important traditional land is. After nearly a decade of experience in this field I believe there is a mindset that needs to change. The only way that health outcomes will improve is through Aboriginal people taking control of every aspect of their lives. Years after Tim died I felt guilty for not being able to do more but the reality is that there were factors out of my control.
Tim getting involved in the grog was only the tip of the iceberg – a number of factors in his community needed to be remedied. For example, destruction of the natural environment, loss of traditional land management practices, lack of job opportunities and so on. I have come to realise that holistic and reciprocal approaches are required to gain tangible health and environmental outcomes. Listening, hearing and then providing assistance is critical, with communities meeting in the middle, to ensure that all parties control the initiative.
Throughout my career I have immersed myself in Aboriginal communities realising there was a great deal that could be learnt from their deep connection to land and health. I have done this because I believe Aboriginal concepts and models of health and the environment will assist all humanity in the future. Therefore, I would classify myself as an ethnographer meaning to:
immerses [myself] … in a social setting for an extended period of time, observing behaviour, listening to what is said in conversation both between others and with the fieldworker, and asking questions (Bryman, 2004; 539)
As a non-Indigenous researcher working in this field I cannot speak from an Indigenous perspective. However, because of my approach I can better gauge and adapt to a number of determinants affecting communities. There are a number of complex issues affecting Australian Aboriginal communities, which varies from place to place, with every group having their own unique needs and programs that will work within them.
For myself, understanding Aboriginal peoples’ connection to land required the ability to respect the values of local communities – this takes time and trust building - not bulldozing personal views and perceptions. I chose ethnography as the way of understanding complex issues by immersing myself in the field, with the aim of learning and then acting. In my opinion this method can greatly improve health and environmental policies not only in Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities but most populations. Therefore, my life is like a jigsaw finally completed by understanding human-nature links better and providing alternatives to reduce health inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
AFL (2011) Dreamtime At The 'G: http://www.afl.com.au/dreamtimeattheg/tabid/14346/default.aspx. Accessed: 23rd of August, 2011.
Bryman, A. (2004) Social Research Methods- Second Edition. Oxford University Press, Melbourne
Gouldner, A.W. (2004) Towards a reflexive sociology. In Social research methods, ed. Seale C., Routledge, Taylor and Frances group, New York, 381-383
Kingsley J, Phillips R, Townsend M, Henderson-Wilson C (2010) Using a qualitative approach to research to build trust between a non-Aboriginal researcher and Aboriginal participants, Qualitative Research Journal, 10(1), 2-12
Maller, C., Townsend, M. St Leger, L., Henderson-Wilson, C. Pryor, A., Prosser, L. Moore, M. (2008) Healthy parks, healthy people: The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context: A review of relevant literature. Deakin University Burwood, Melbourne
Pretty, J. (2007) The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Nature and Our Place in it. Earthscan, James and James Science Publications, London
Videbsky, P. (2005) Reindeer People: living with animals and spirits in Siberia. Houghton Mifflin, Boston
Wilson, E. O. (1984) Biophilia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge
 I will be referring to an Aboriginal person (who has pasted away) so to protect this individual for cultural reason I will use pseudonyms in place of their real name
 Dreamtime at the G is the annual Australian Rules football match highlighting the Indigenous Round and is a celebration of Indigenous culture (AFL, 2011)
 Australian slang for alcohol